exploring systems thinking & sustainability

“There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In a 2012 paper, Prof. John Sterman of MIT raises the intriguing question: Is the sustainability movement itself sustainable? Do current approaches to sustainability make any real difference to the long-term sustainability of human society?

Most efforts by firms, individuals and governments- like reducing waste, cutting energy & material footprints, reducing GHG emissions etc.- are directed at the symptoms of unsustainability. While necessary, these measures are insufficient where they fail to consider and address underlying causes. Further, sustainability is often presented as a “competition” between competing dimensions. For example – “environment vs. economy”, or even “polar bears vs. Arctic drilling”.

imagine: evolving our mental models
inspired by: Talkin’ Business

Sterman notes that “economy, society, and environment are not separate domains to be traded off against one another” and that framing sustainability in terms of these false dichotomies or “invisible fences of the mind” reflects a “narrow and deeply dysfunctional mental model”. In other words, the interests of business, society and the environment are fundamentally aligned.

in the water biz since 1886
image: via Pinterest

This mindset is echoed by Dr. Peter Senge, systems thinker and author of The Necessary Revolution. Senge offers the example of Coca Cola – from an integrated perspective, Coke’s business is “really about water”. Without “more effective, long-term, integrative management of watersheds in the world” the company will literally be out of business. This hasn’t figured in Coke’s strategy until relatively recently, though- indicative of the mental models of its decision makers.

Systems Dynamics

In moving towards a more holistic understanding of our sustainability problems, we are confronted with some annoying features of real-world complexity. Principal among these is the presence of feedback – which can be intuitively thought of as the propagation of “information” about an “action” in some part of the system through various channels so that it eventually “returns” to the point of origin, possibly influencing future behaviour.

There are only 2 types of feedback – reinforcing and balancing. An interesting example of reinforcing feedback is provided by Walters & Neely (2016).

panic stampede dynamics
image: Walters & Neely (2016)


more people running►
more panic►
more people running►… etc.

As is evident from this news report, false alarms trigger stampedes when reinforcing dynamics are present.

Balancing feedback, on the other hand, works as showed in the example below.

dynamics of highway building
image: Roberts (1978)

more highways ►
less traffic jams ►
less need for new highways
less (new) highways► etc.

A “converse” reading of the loop also exists – i.e. less highwaysmore traffic jams etc.

These loops “balance” opposing effects and stabilize the outcomes of systems. For this reason, they are also called “goal seeking loops” – the “goal” being the stable outcome(s) generated.

JFK: “It isn’t the first step that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step. And we won’t go to the sixth because there [will be] no one around to do so”
images: via Wikipedia & The Systems Thinker

Of course, balancing and feedback loops can be combined (sometimes to dizzying levels of complexity) in the quest to understand dynamic phenomena. It turns out, though, that certain “systems archetypes” exist – patterns of loop structure that repeat across problems, therefore creating similar “stories” in terms of the system’s dynamics. We can even see these patterns embedded in the political events of the day – if we know how to look!

Wicked Problems, Policy Resistance & Systems Thinking

Dubya: this be hard!
image: memegenerator.net

In principle, the dynamics of a system can be extrapolated if a sufficiently accurate loop structure is known. It would be great if human beings were naturally gifted at this! Unfortunately, research suggests otherwise – as Sterman notes, the mental models of most people don’t contain even the simplest notions of feedback or exponential growth, let alone higher-order archetypes like ‘the tragedy of the commons’ or ‘limits to growth’.

This is a challenge for sustainability problem-solving.

As Lönngren & Svanström note, the “systems-thinking competence” is a key component of education for sustainable development. These are the skills we need to equip solvers with, for them to deal with the challenges of the world they are inheriting. This is missing from our education system!

The solvers of today (and tomorrow) need tools to deal with climate change, poverty, gender inequality and other challenges. Often ill-formulated and complex, characterized by finite resource constraints and value conflicts, these poetically-named wicked problems need to be explored and processed through approaches like systems thinking for us to have the best chance of creating a better world.

Failure to do so results in effects like policy resistance and “unintended consequenceswhere a well-intentioned intervention strangely backfires, with the system in question seeming to “resist” the change.

policy resistance in the Dutch energy transition.
rising investment in clean infrastructure►greater intermittency►more investment, balancing the attractiveness of clean energy.
image: de Gooyert et. al (2016)

The application of systems thinking to sustainability is a profoundly deep and important topic, with much to reflect on. We’ve barely scratched the surface! Still, I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. We’ll explore more aspects in follow-on articles. In the meantime, I leave you with a quote from one of my favourite systems thinkers…

“God grant us the serenity to exercise our bounded rationality freely in the systems that are structured appropriately, the courage to restructure the systems that aren’t, and the wisdom to know the difference!”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

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